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Gela Vasadze: "As Georgia was" exchanged "for Iran. Myths and the reality of anti-Iranian sanctions in the South Caucasus »

Photo: EurAsiaDaily

"Georgia was exchanged for Iran" - this is what I was very worried about with my childhood friend working in the Silicon Valley, in August 2008 year. Of course, my friend has nothing to do with politics and does not have to deal with it, but in itself the case is quite remarkable, as in the representation of ordinary people, a large political struggle appears to be a large bazaar in which all trade and change by the fact that they do not belong. Such is a political mythology. However, mythology is mythology, but in real life everything looks a little different.

Of all the countries of the South Caucasus, only Georgia has no common border with Iran. Does this mean that for Georgia, Iran is something far away and does not matter what is happening there. Of course, there is no, and there is no reason for a number of reasons. Let's start with the obvious - geographical proximity, economic ties or common history. The geographical proximity, of course, exists, but the absence of a common border and the political agenda, which is very little connected with Iran, alleviates this factor. In addition, in the public consciousness of the inhabitants of Georgia there is a narrative that Georgia is Europe, and the connection between Iran and Europe can not trace the consciousness itself. Well, the general history long forgotten by the efforts of Soviet, and then Russian historiography, in which Iran was portrayed exclusively as a hostile state. No efforts were made to create an objective picture of a story in which Georgia was not only experiencing the pressure of a once powerful empire, but also a powerful cultural and even civilizational influence, of course, was not. However, the Iranian factor is important, important for both Georgia and its neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan. For the latter, it is perhaps critical.

For Armenia The importance of Iran is determined primarily by the same geography. Due to well-known reasons, in Armenia's real life, not four, but two neighboring countries, and one of them is Iran. Following Russia, China and Georgia, Iran is the fourth trading partner of Armenia, with foreign trade turnover of 361 US dollars. Iran's imports to Armenia in 2018 year amounted to 267 million dollars, and exports - 94 million dollars. Naturally, this is not comparable with trade indicators with Armenia's main trading partner with Russia, 2 billion 61 million dollars; however, underestimating Iran's significance for the Armenian economy would be a serious mistake.

More important is the role of Teheran as a political partner of Yerevan. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between Armenia and Iran are relations of traditional political partners. These relations have not been formalized in formal unions, but through bilateral treaties, they have the character of strong institutional cooperation. It is far from accidental, announcing the foreign policy course, the new prime minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan paid special attention to Iran.

Undoubted interest is the visit of Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan to Tehran in February this year. An interesting point is that Pashinyan was invited to Iran not as the president of the country, but as a spiritual leader, that is, the status of the visit was raised to the maximum possible.

During the visit, the Iranian president and the Armenian PM announced plans for the transit of Iranian gas to Europe. Is this transit possible? It is possible, but subject to swap shipments from Russia to Georgia. That is, Iran has supplied Gazprom-Armenia with a newly modernized gas pipeline and Gazprom sends the same volumes to Europe. Or through Georgia, but in this case it will be necessary to negotiate with Azerbaijan, which controls the South Caucasus gas corridor, either directly on the "Turkish flow" or "North flow-2", if the latter is nevertheless constructed.

In addition, Armenia has high expectations of exporting energy to Iran. For this purpose, a new power transmission line is being built, although this construction is seriously behind schedule, in the project, which was scheduled to be completed by the end of 2018 year, only 20% of jobs have been completed to date. In addition, in March of this year, Deputy Energy Minister of Armenia Garegin Bagramyan voiced plans to increase gas supplies to Armenia on a barter scheme for gas in exchange for electricity. For this purpose, Armenia plans to build a new thermal power plant. That is, in addition to the current cooperation, there are serious plans. So, if we talk about the economy, then anti-Iranian sanctions threaten, above all, the implementation of such plans.

In previous years, the United States understood Iran-Armenian cooperation comprehensively as they understood the specifics of the situation in Armenia. However, the question is whether this understanding will spread to the expansion of cooperation, especially during the era of the administration of Donald Trump. Another question is what can we suggest or, let's say differently, how the US administration may influence the country, which literally integrates into the Russian system of economic, military and international relations. On the one hand, the United States accounts for about two and a half percent of Armenian exports and about three percent of imports. But it's clear that relations with the US are not about the economy, just like the huge embassy of this country in Yerevan is not about Armenia, but more about the same Iran.

Much more serious problems for Armenia are possible in case of exacerbation of Iran's relations with the European Union. Iran's recent announcement to end two commitments under the 2015 agreement on a nuclear program ("Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action") in response to US economic sanctions and the threat of Rookhani to resume production of highly enriched uranium through 60 days has raised a very serious concern in Brussels. Mogherini called the moment a critical one and called on Iran to exercise restraint. However, Iran itself is in the position of Zugzwang: no reaction to American sanctions in Tehran can be, and any steps to exit the deal threaten the complications of relations with Brussels, which all this time, despite the serious pressure from Washington, consistently supported Tehran.

If the EU still has to accede to sanctions against Iran, in the case of Armenia, the process of ratification of the Comprehensive Partnership Agreement between the EU and Armenia (CEPA) may be in jeopardy. One way or another, Yerevan will have to negotiate with both Washington and Brussels, and with Tehran. However, the last word in this case, as always, behind Moscow.

For Of Azerbaijan, the attenuation of Iran at first glance can be even profitable. Frankly speaking, Iran is one of two countries that has the opportunity to try to seriously destabilize the situation in Azerbaijan. Moreover, if Russia can try to destabilize the situation, relying exclusively on the elites, in the case of Iran, it is about using the religious factor, based on unrest among the population, especially the rural one. For a long time, it was considered that the contradictions between Azerbaijan and Iran are existential, they say, Iran will never accept education on its northern frontiers of the Azerbaijani state, with its territory consisting of tens of millions of Azerbaijanis.

However, in recent years, especially with President Rookhani's coming to power in Iran, the situation has changed dramatically for the better. In Baku and Tehran began to realize that mutual "historical" offenses should in no way interfere with possible fruitful cooperation. And the prospects of this cooperation are dizzying in the literal sense of the word. Azerbaijan becomes the main link between Iran and its only major ally, Russia. It is clear that no one has canceled the Iranian-Russian contradictions, especially in Syria, however, strategically this tripartite format is extremely beneficial both for Baku and for Moscow with Teheran.

In November, 2017 year after a long wait, Tehran finally agreed to take 500 millions of dollars in a loan from Baku for the construction of the Railroad Astor, which will connect Iran with Azerbaijan.

In March 2019 Iran completed the construction of the section of the road Kazvin-Resht, while the Iranian and Azerbaijani economy ministers agreed to accelerate the construction of the settlement of Rasht-Astara. Considering the developing relations between Moscow and Ankara, as well as the trilateral Russia-Turkey-Iran format, prospects of Azerbaijan's accession to this format were very large.

Yes, and without multilateral formats, the relationship between Iran and Azerbaijan over the last five years is experiencing a serious upsurge. Over the past five years, heads of state met twelve times, held an 24 business forum, held 13 meetings of the Azerbaijani-Iranian Intergovernmental Commission, and signed more than 150 agreements. According to the results of 2018, the trade turnover with Iran grew by 74% and reached 446 millions of dollars, of which the export of Azerbaijani goods amounted to 31,2 million dollars, the import of Iranian goods to the country reached 414,8 million dollars.

The first thing that strikes the eyes is the very sharp increase in trade and the imbalance between imports and exports. However, this is simply explained - the fall of the Iranian currency made imports of goods from Iran to Azerbaijan super-beneficial, so this moment can quite be considered the consequences of the new US policy against Iran.

Regarding the political aspects, Azerbaijan continues to be very cautious about Iran, which is quite understandable, and beyond that confirmation - the events of the summer of last year, when in some mass media there were hints of the involvement of forces linked to Iran to an attempt at the mayor of Ganja . However, as pragmatists, the Azerbaijani authorities are well aware that the more Iran is economically interested in cooperation with Azerbaijan, the lesser the threat comes from it. Thus, for Azerbaijan, the "nuclear deal" and the general warming of Iran's relations with the West could be considered positive, although there are nuances.

After coming to the White House of the Trump administration and a new round of exacerbations of relations with Iran, Azerbaijan's leadership really did have a difficult task: not to spoil relations with the USA, and at the same time maintain a positive dynamics of relations with Iran. Moreover, the United States has something to offer - from the abolition of the 907 amendment and political support in various formats to investments and technologies. The whole question is, how much the United States will need to support Azerbaijan in the Iranian case. Bolton's visit to Iran in October last year. Investments, arms sales, security issues were also discussed, but there were no particularly dramatic changes. To date, there are no clear markers indicating a sharp change in the policy of Baku towards Tehran.

And the most important point: if the question is whether Azerbaijan's weakening of Iran is debatable, then the question is whether Azerbaijan's destabilization in Iran is the answer - definitely negative. The whole burden of a humanitarian catastrophe, which inevitably happens as a result of such destabilization, will lie, first and foremost, with Azerbaijan. Of course, not all other neighbors, including Armenia, will appear, but it is clear that the inhabitants of the northern regions of Iran in the event of a humanitarian catastrophe will seek salvation precisely in Azerbaijan.

... Several years ago, such developments seemed almost fantastic, but today, when the US administration takes politics toward Iran as a zero-sum game, it's not necessary to exclude such a development of events. However, this is an extreme, and for now let's confine ourselves to establishing the fact that anti-Iranian sanctions at the level that they exist today are unlikely to have a serious impact on the political stability or economic condition of Azerbaijan. Although they are unpleasant, as any negative in the neighboring state.

Concerning Georgia, then this is not all that clear. Yes, Georgia has no common border with Iran, the level of economic contacts between Georgia and Iran, to put it mildly, is far from being critically high, and the political component of our relations is also not the main issue of the Georgian political agenda. But this is just one side of our relationship.

There is also another side, and if we look at it, we will see a certain influence of Iran in the region of Kvemo-Kartli. It is worth recalling that during the aggression of Russia against Georgia in August 2008, Iran's Foreign Minister Mottaki proposed to act as a mediator for the early cessation of hostilities and warned of the threat of a new Cold War. In the international arena, Iran strongly supports the territorial integrity of Georgia. Thus, in the UN General Assembly's vote on the status of internally displaced persons and refugees ... in June 2018 Iran did not join 15 in countries that supported Russia and voted against. It is unlikely that Iran can be blamed for the fact that its ally, Syria, has recognized the "independence" of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia, since it is clear that this initiative originated entirely from the other side.

Now, as far as economic ties are concerned, in 2018, from Iran to Georgia, goods were imported at 178 millions of US dollars. This is much less than from other Georgian neighbors. By comparison, in the same year, Turkish imports to Georgia totaled 1 billion 473 million dollars, Russian 936 million dollars, imports from Azerbaijan 586 million dollars, and even a small Armenia imported goods to Georgia for 385 millions of dollars, which is more than twice as much than import from Iran.

However, here too everything is so unambiguous. Georgia receives from Iran 93 percent of petroleum coke, the raw material needed for the production of ferroalloys. In turn, ferroalloys are the most important article of Georgian exports, about 10% of the total volume, in the second position after manganese. In addition, Iran is one of the main buyers of Georgian lamb, which has increased the demand for virtually salvaged mountainous regions of Georgia. Well, the revenues from Iranian tourists, which in the 2018 year were almost three hundred thousand, which is the fifth indicator after Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey and Armenia, is also absolutely not superfluous for the Georgian economy.

It is clear that Georgia has no such large-scale projects with Iran as our neighbors; however, we should not underestimate the importance of economic cooperation with Iran either. According to rumors circulating in the capital of Georgia, Iranian citizens are increasingly faced with difficulties in doing business in Georgia. However, whether this is due to United States sanctions or an initiative by local authorities that are pursuing consistent policies to restrict entrepreneurship in general, new market regulations and general tightening of migration policies is a big issue.

And the last one. The fact that Georgia is a strategic partner of the United States, institutionalized by a system of bilateral agreements, including the "Charter on Strategic Cooperation", obliges the authorities to follow the wavelength of Washington's policy. To date, the United States is the only, if informal, guarantor of Georgia's security. And it is impossible to argue with this, however, as with the fact that the growing US pressure on Iran often puts or can put American partners and allies in a very difficult situation. And Georgia is not an exception here.

Gela Vasadze, political analyst at the Caucasus Institute for Strategic Studies, Tbilisi